We just finished Thanksgiving dinner here at my house last night and as I think back about the experience it was fun to share the meal with family and friends. It was of course also a meal of gorging ourselves on all the traditional foods. When we gather this way for a feast we often give ourselves permission to indulge in plates flowing over. But as if that wasn’t enough we follow that up with a piece of both apple and pumpkin pie. At the end of the night I pride myself in sending my guests home with leftovers and there are leftovers still in my refrigerator too. This morning it struck a memory for me though, a memory of being mindful about eating and about my early years practicing meditation and going to retreats.
The Korean school of Zen that I used to practice with had some really wonderful retreats. One of my favorite parts of the retreats for me was the meals. The food was always wonderful and I have picked up some great food preferences along the way from those retreats. For instance, I can’t even eat oatmeal any more without a glob of peanut butter on top and I found out how much I love kimchee.
Eating during a retreat was an experience in mindfulness of food for nutrition for the body but also was feast for the mind as you appreciated the actual flavors. More than all of this though was the process of every group meal.
Eating as a group was a ritual experience that required you to bring your bundle of bowls wrapped in a cloth napkin and tied off with the spoon and chopsticks in the top knot and place it in front of your cushion. There was a specific way you were supposed to lay out your four bowls and it was dictated which of the three bowls held different kinds of food. Food was brought to you and you were to take only what you felt you could eat. You also noticed how many other people were ahead of you and so you tried to portion how much you took so there was enough for everyone. But you only put food in three of your bowls. The fourth bowl was for a hot tea that you could sip but that you needed to have enough left over for later as I will soon explain.
We ate in silence and took in the flavors. We took breaths between bites and we ate with mindfulness. The food was really there to nurture us in our practice. It was a small moment of satisfaction and enjoyment during what at times was a very intense expenditure of the mind in sitting for hours each day in meditation.
At the end of the meal we brought our attention to the bowl holding the tea. Remember the tea that wasn’t drank? It was then dumped into one of the food bowls. You then used the tea to rinse the food from that bowl. That bowl was then poured into the next and the same cleaning was done, and then to the final bowl after that. The final bowl was then used as a basin for cleaning your spoon and chopsticks in. At the end that bowl held the dregs of all of the bowls. You then took this bowl and drank it. Nothing was wasted. Some might be gagging about this idea but if you stop and think about it, you have missed the point. All of the food that was served was used, and not wasted.
The ritual wasn’t complete though. The final step in this process was that water was then poured into everyone’s tea bowl and the process of rinsing the bowls was repeated with warm water. At this time someone would come around with a large bowl and collect the water from everyone’s last bowl. If there were any bits of food remaining in your bowl you were to be careful not to pour them into the main collection bowl but leave them and drink them with the remaining water. The mythology behind this practice was that there were “hungry ghosts” who lived in the drains. They had large mouths but only small throats and the smallest of particles would choke them. It was kind of a reinforcement of the whole thing. We then dried off our bowls and utensils, stacked the bowls and tied them into bundles again with the spoon and chopsticks on top.
I want to be sure that I retain this practice in my everyday life. There are still times that I practice something similar to the four bowls from the retreats. Though not as formal a ritual, I use a pared down version of this mindful eating exercise by using a single bowl and a cup for my tea. I try not to take more food than I can eat and instead I keep the idea of focusing on the flavor and enjoyment I get from the food. It is a meditation of eating slowly and breathing with delight in every bite. I still use the tea to clean my bowl and spoon and I still drink the dregs of the meal with the tea. I like this practice and find it a good reminder about being grateful for food and at the same time to be mindful not to be wasteful.
I use this one bowl technique when I go backpacking or when I take solo retreats still. It is not just efficient but becomes a moment of peace and ritual in your life experience. Slowing down to the moment and not just forcing food into your hole. You can also do this every day at home. I highly recommend trying to have at least one meal a day this way. It is a great practice. When we eat slower we actually eat less but are just as satisfied. Our relationship to our meals becomes about fulfilling more than just our physical hunger but also our emotional hunger.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time where we give thanks for the things we have. I think sometimes the “giving” part of “thanksgiving” gets lost in the gluttony. The holiday should be as much about giving as it is the gratitude for what we have. What good is it to have more than we need? It is important to share our prosperity. Too much of our western society is caught up in consumerism and “getting”. I write this on “Black Friday”. The American celebration of being thankful the day before for all we have, only to spend the next day buying all the things we don’t have.
Look at your life with the simplicity of the one bowl. Do you take more than you need? Are you wasting anything unnecessarily just because you can? Are you thinking about others in need? Do you think of others and have a desire to share and make sure that everyone has enough? Are you striving for things and forgetting what you already have?
I am lucky to have this life I do, I am happy to share my surplus, I am grateful for family and friends and I wish you a very happy rest of the year.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.